Book review: ‘Please Look After Mom’

Traveling from their home in the Korean countryside to visit their now-grown children in Seoul, an aging couple find themselves separated from each other in a busy subway station: “Mom and Father rushed toward the subway that had just arrived. Father got on, and when he looked behind him, Mom wasn’t there. . . . Mom was pulled away from Father in the crowd, and the subway left as she tried to get her bearings.” A search ensues — an entire family mobilized to find the missing matriarch, Park So-nyo. Fliers are posted and distributed by hand. The children follow up on sightings throughout the city, but leads fall flat. The crisis creates “a fissure” in the family’s daily lives, and soon bickering and blame unfold in equal measure.

Please Look After Mom” by best-selling South Korean novelist Kyung-sook Shin is the author’s first to be translated into English. Noteworthy advance praise has called it “suspenseful and moving” (Edwidge Danticat) and “a heartbreaking family mystery” (Abraham Verghese). But that praise and the quick synopsis above may suggest something different from what this novel actually is. Rather than a briskly moving investigation into a woman’s disappearance, “Please Look After Mom” gazes moodily backward and inward. It offers reflective meditations on motherhood and a ruminative quest to confront mysteries more abstract than figuring out where Park So-nyo went.

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Divided into four sections and an epilogue, the book allows several family members to weigh in on the shared crisis, often in an intimate second-person narration: “You all blamed each other for Mom’s going missing, and you all felt wounded.” Chi-hon, the elder daughter and now a noted novelist, comes first, followed by elder son Hyong-chol, then the father and, ultimately, the missing Park So-nyo herself. These ­accumulating voices form a kind of instrumental suite, each segment joined by the same melody of family nostalgia, guilt and apology, and each ­occasionally plucking away at several larger motifs: country vs. city living, illiteracy vs. ­education, arranged mar­riages vs. modern dating, traditions vs. new freedoms.

A melancholic regret reigns over it all: adult children’s guilt over their parents’ aging, parents’ guilt about being burdens to their children, spouses wishing they’d been better spouses. Each of Park So-nyo’s children frets over the memory of what he or she had been doing at the time of her disappearance, and the father rues a 50-year tendency that he thinks guaranteed tragedy: “It didn’t take even a moment to realize that your life had veered off track because of your speedy gait, because of your habit of always walking in front of your wife during all those years of marriage.”

As memories of the missing woman pile atop one another, the facts of Park So-nyo’s story emerge: a woman struggling against poverty, keeping four hungry mouths fed, managing a pesky in-law, suffering infidelity and preserving traditions. But all the adoration and regret tingeing those stories quickly leads to mythologizing: Park So-nyo’s hands “could nurture any life,” her food “brimmed with love,” and she made a daring train ride — her first! — alone and nearly barefoot in bitter winter because her son requested a copy of his diploma for a college application.

The book strives to plumb some deep and essential truth about motherhood, but the realizations that shatter these characters’ apathy may strike readers as somewhat less profound. From Chi-hon’s section: “You don’t understand why it took you so long to realize something so obvious. To you, Mom was always Mom. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.” From the father’s section: “After your children’s mother went missing, you realized that it was your wife who was missing. Your wife, whom you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly.” So a woman is more than the chores of motherhood? So you realize what you had only when it’s gone? I have to agree with Chi-hon’s assessment: Why has it taken so long to realize something so obvious? And yet similar revelations continue to mount. As Park So-nyo herself reflects: “Oh, I don’t know where to stop these memories, the memories that are sprouting all over the place like spring greens,” at which point I thought some pruning might have been nice.

Still, despite the simplicity of the underlying message here — Call your mom now! — and the occasional monotony of its delivery — Did you hear me? Call your mom now! — these memories will strike a chord with many readers, perhaps stimulating their own recollections or regrets. Truth be told, I called my mom well before the book’s final page, feeling the need to look after her a little myself.

Taylor frequently reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.

Please look after mom

By Kyung-sook Shin. Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim. Knopf. 237 pp. $24.95

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